You Can’t Be Nice to a Narcissist

May 6, 2019

My name is Dave, and I consider myself a narcissist.

I love attention, I constantly overestimate myself, and my favorite topic of conversation is me. Chances are you know people like me, because there are a lot of us — yet almost no one knows how to deal with us effectively.

In fact, what most people do ends up enabling narcissists instead of helping us become aware of and correct problematic behavior. You can’t be nice to a narcissist. You can’t tiptoe around our self-esteem, and you can’t think we’re allocating the same amount of attention to other people as you might be.

Narcissists are great at focusing on themselves, and that’s not always a bad thing. We’re better at self-care, we often like public speaking and we typically don’t need affirmations like “you’re good enough” or “you’re worthy”. We have self-esteem by the bushel.

But before we begin — let’s talk about the word narcissist, because it gets tossed around a lot and it’s worth taking a closer look at.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a rare mental health disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)1, and that’s not what I’m referring to when I call myself a narcissist — although it’s not that simple.

When I looked up Narcissistic Personality Disorder I found nine criteria. To qualify for the disorder you needed at least five, and here they are.

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates
    achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior
    without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power,
    brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be
    understood by, or should associate with, other special or high status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of
    especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his
    or her expectations.
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to
    achieve his or her own ends.
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the
    feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of
    him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Maybe I’m just being really honest, but I can relate to every single one of those, especially on my bad days. I imagine I’m not alone either.

So where does narcissism go from being a mental health disorder to a personality type? Short answer is I don’t know. I’ve met some people who seem to go far beyond just having a lot of confidence. There are some folks who really, truly don’t seem to have the ability to see themselves as anything but glorious — and it’s had me really understand NPD as a mental health disorder.

For that reason, I’m just going focus on people that I’m referring to as having a “narcissistic personality”. It’s not that the things I say here won’t apply to folks with the mental health disorder, they will, but the scale and magnitude is different, so that should be factored in when working with people who fall into the mental health disorder category.

Many of the people we love and adore are essentially high-functioning narcissists. It’s very possible to exist with a narcissistic personality and not have it destroy your life, but only if you’re able to calibrate for your shortcomings.

For example, I know that I have an over-inflated sense of self importance and I think what I have to say is special and should be given extra attention (which is probably not terribly surprising, considering you’re reading this on a website built on the significance of my opinions). Instead of denying this fact, I accept it and try and calibrate for it. These are the things I say to myself when in conversation with someone, especially someone new.

Listen more, talk less.
No one actually cares what you have to say.

Be interested in them, don’t make everything about you.

That’s some of my medicine for showing up as a good person, but yours may look completely different. In fact, the phrase “no one actually cares what you have to say” may be downright abusive when said to some people, because it matches up with their own insecurities — but that’s the point, different people require different medicine.

Often what happens when folks don’t recognize a narcissistic personality type is they are overly gentle and accommodating, then get taken advantage of.

To take a closer look at this dynamic, let’s look at narcissism on a spectrum, and like any spectrum, we need to also understand the opposite end. 

The Narcissist and the Doormat

Before we dive into this, I want to say that my findings here are completely anecdotal so your milage may vary. They are based on my life experience, both in identifying with narcissism and also seeing it in others. For a more professional take on these topics, I recommend reading Dr. George Simon, who is the author of several books and an internationally-recognized expert on character development and narcissism.

In my experience, narcissism exists on a spectrum, and it has an opposite, which I call being a doormat. The word doormat may seem harsh, but it’s important to pick a word that’s just as undesirable as “narcissist”, lest we see one side as more righteous than the other.Narcissists take up too much space, doormats don’t take up enough.
Narcissists crave attention, doormats reject it.
Narcissists overestimate themselves, doormats underestimate themselves.
Narcissists are lead singers, doormats are bass players, etcetera… etcetera…

One is not better than the other, and in my experience, we are all either one or the other to some degree (and there are people in the middle as well).

It’s also worth mentioning that while I’m choosing to put people on this spectrum for the sake of simplicity, it’s not black and white — we show up differently in different circumstances, and often as our life progresses these character traits may shift.

So now that we’re on the same page about what I mean when I use the term “narcissist” and we see that everyone has their own problems, let’s talk about how to deal with narcissists and why that’s different than dealing with doormats.

Truth + Consequence

When I think about what really works with narcissists, and what has worked with me, I sum it up with two words. Truth and consequences. Narcissists are great at blaming others, so when they are confronted in a way that they can’t escape from, it becomes a humbling and useful experience.

Speaking of humbling, here’s an example of that working in my own life.

In my twenties I was fumbling through trying to date multiple women, and I wasn’t good at it. I liked to think I was honest and didn’t lie, but I also wasn’t upfront, especially when I thought it would be upsetting to the people I dated.

On one occasion I invited two girls to the same show I was playing at a local bar. I don’t remember the context as to why I invited them, but the end result was me looking like an idiot in front of two different women who ended up meeting and at the show.

The next day, one of the women confronted me. I can’t recall what she said, but I remember distinctly how I felt — I felt completely exposed because I had no excuse. She didn’t yell at me, she just communicated this to me in a simple, direct way.

You lied to me, we’re done. Good bye.

I felt horrible. She was absolutely right, and I was left with nothing but my own crappy excuses, which she clearly wasn’t buying. I’ll never forget how shitty that felt, and I felt that healthy kind of shame (Brené Brown distinguishes this as “guilt” which I find useful), and it was the kind of shame that made me change. She didn’t try and protect my ego, she didn’t fight with me, and there was no yelling or screaming — just her delivering a simple truth and walking away.

Truth — speaking directly to her experience of me with no filter.
Consequence — walking away.

That moment (and many others) have stuck with me for my whole life. Are truth and consequences powerful motivators for any human, regardless of their personality? I think so, but here’s why that becomes particularly useful for narcissists.

Narcissists are constantly inflating our own egos, so when we get harsh feedback, it’s not typically landing on a system that’s already been beating itself up all day. That’s not to say that narcissists don’t have insecurities or self-doubt, we do — but our inner dialogue is more like a self-righteous asshole than an abusive parent.

Humility is really good medicine for us.

(For more see George Simon’s article Hitting Bottom Can Help a Narcissist)

If It Doesn’t Sting, It Won’t Stick

Sometimes narcissists get let off the hook, and it’s typically because there are no consequences for their actions.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen narcissists get “talked to” in hopes they will change, only to watch the same thing happen again, and again, and again.

If only they could just see what they’re doing wrong!

They don’t. We don’t. At least, we typically don’t understand the importance of it, or the significance of it, until you bring in consequences. Again, do I think this is good medicine for all humans? Yes, I do — but narcissists need an extra dose of this, and they need it delivered straight, no chaser.

I see this in the world of spiritual teachers all the time. Someone gets accused of abusing their power and as a response, they write a weak-ass apology note including a heart-felt promise to change their behavior. 

I wish it were that simple. It’s not that the apology isn’t sincere or that they don’t intend to change — I believe they do — but I also think there’s a part of our brains that don’t register something as serious unless there are consequences associated.

“Fuckin with your cash is the only thing you kids seem to understand!”

In the case of the teacher who abused his power, an example of an actual consequence would be him stepping down from teaching temporarily (at the least). And, if he is really serious about changing, he would leave the decision about when to return up to an appointed group of people who have the student’s best interest in mind.

Consequences need to be painful, it can’t simply be a “slap on the wrist” or removal of some privileges that weren’t that important to begin with.

If it doesn’t sting, it won’t stick.

But that creates another hurdle. No one wants to lose their status, or their income, or anything else that’s important to them — so narcissists are enormously incentivized to tactically deceive others, which is why it’s important for us to understand two common escape/avoidance strategies.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

In my experience, when narcissists are confronted with something they don’t want to see, they often unconsciously employ two strategies — one is associated with defensiveness and attack, the other with victimhood and “woe is me” behavior.2

The first strategy essentially boils down to “it’s actually your fault, not mine — and let me tell you why”. This is a clever way of turning the attention toward someone else, and while it may be true that responsibility is shared by both parties, this comment is a distraction and should be recognized as such.

The second strategy is more subversive, it’s where someone hides behind the story of being a victim. This is especially manipulative when used against people who are highly empathetic.

That’s because playing the victim card triggers a strong empathy response, and compels us to give that person a second chance. “They couldn’t help it”, we think to ourselves. I’m always reminded of the quote from Maya Angelou that says “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time”.

It’s incredibly important to remember that, because narcissists will talk a big game when their backs are against the wall. They will tell you how sorry they are and of course — promise over and over to change, but it’s just another distraction.

The Kindness of Pain

As I’m writing this, I have a heat pack on my neck because it’s sore. This isn’t new — my neck is always tight, but today I’m in more pain than usual, so I decided to do something about it. That’s what we do, and while it may not be what we want to believe about ourselves, it’s what is undeniably true.

Pain motivates us to change.

If I put my hand too close to an open flame, pain is what saves me from getting burned, because it shows up before too much physical harm is done. Our body instinctually knows what we react to, so it makes us feel something — it doesn’t just send us a thought that says “that will hurt if you don’t move your hand”. Visceral pain is our best friend, because it saves us from more suffering down the road.

This same thing is true in relationships.

When we’re honest with ourselves, consequences for bad behavior happen naturally and can help people correct themselves quickly, so they don’t cause more harm down the road.

Doing things like withdrawing our attention or “telling on” that person to their community may seem like cruel acts — but when we zoom out, we can see that allowing that person to feel a little pain now — just might save them from a future where they get severely burned.

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  2. Again, I think this is true of many people, but this is especially important to recognize with narcissists, as I’ll explain below.